Last school year, 1,381 seniors – more than 20 percent of San Diego Unified’s class of 2016 – took an online version of a course required for graduation. Roughly 92 percent of them passed.

It’s an impressive pass rate. And it was crucial for the class of 2016. That group ended up setting the highest graduation rate on record. They achieved that even as the first class to be subject to far more rigorous graduation requirements.

Researchers had predicted it would be impossible, in fact, for the class of 2016 to graduate at the rate they did.

But the academics hadn’t factored in the new online courses that would quickly allow students to catch up. Students aced them. The tool, though, has faced questions in other districts and San Diego officials could not tell us basic things about how much time students spent with the programs.

They were, though, crucial to the district achieving a milestone leaders have touted for many weeks.

Last May, San Diego Unified officials announced 92 percent of the class of 2016 was on track to graduate. To get there, they had to exclude thousands of students from the calculation. But for the rest, the numbers came as surprise, and not just because it would be the highest graduation rate on record.

Just two months earlier, a team of researchers from UCSD estimated that the district would graduate, at best, 85 percent of its seniors. According to UCSD’s numbers, which included student data through August 2015, 15 percent of students in the class of 2016 had more than a year’s work to complete and less than a year to complete it.

“Maybe they will get up to 80 percent, or even 85 percent by June,” said Julian Betts, a UCSD researcher who led the study. “If it was beyond 85 percent, wouldn’t you wonder?” Betts told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Ron Rode, a senior San Diego Unified administrator and the district’s point person on the graduation data, confirmed the numbers: “We have no quarrel with (UCSD’s) data,” Rode said at the time.

Yet, two months later, district officials proudly projected the graduation rate would reach 92 percent.

How could the district overcome such improbable odds?

At the May school board meeting in which the 92 percent number was announced, Superintendent Cindy Marten attributed the rapid gains to a variety of strategies administrators used to move kids toward graduation. They revamped course schedules so students could take the classes they needed to graduate, expanded summer school and allowed students who speak a second language to test out of the foreign language requirements other students must meet.

And for students at risk of failing to graduate, the district gave extra support to help them reach expectations.

“We put in the strong supports that we knew they needed as early as middle school. We didn’t wait until there was a problem and then react. We were proactive. We expanded the menu of tutoring programs, offered new summer school programs, and introduced online credit recovery courses,” Marten said.

The online credit recovery offered by the district, developed by a company named Edgenuity, allows students to retake classes they previously failed. In April 2015, San Diego Unified hired Edgenuity to develop credit recovery courses aligned with entrance requirements to the University of California.

San Diego students have fared well in those courses. According to the district’s numbers, last year 1,381 seniors took an online credit recovery course they needed graduate, and nearly 92 percent of them passed.

The pass rate falls to 82 percent when you include all students who completed online courses between fall 2015 and summer 2016, according to district spokesperson Jennifer Rodriguez.

Students can complete online credit recovery coursework at home, at night or on the weekends. High school students can also complete coursework in a school computer labs during their study periods.

And students don’t have to spend a full semester in order to complete them. Rodriguez said that students can take as much time as they need to complete online recovery courses, and the general rule of thumb is that an online course takes roughly 60 hours – or an hour a day for 12 weeks – to complete.

But the classes also allowed students to skip over course sections if they scored at least a 70 percent on a “pretest” they take before they begin coursework.

District officials couldn’t say what percentage of the students who took an online course skipped over material, and what percentage of them completed courses from beginning to end.

“We don’t have readily available what (percentage of students) were able to test out of a section or sections of a course or courses,” Rodriguez wrote in an email.

San Diego Unified wasn’t the only district to take this approach. Students in Los Angeles Unified, whose online classes were also developed by Edgenuity, could skip over sections if they scored a 60 percent or better on their pretests.

The online courses must be approved for rigor by the University of California. Los Angeles Unified allowed an editorial writer from the Los Angeles Times to enroll in an online recovery course. The writer questioned whether it was a good approach to let students get through courses with potentially very little seat time:

“The coursework is rigorous enough. But the courses were set up so that students could skip virtually all of it if they passed a ‘pre-test’ first — 10 multiple-choice questions, with access to the Internet for assistance. To pass that pre-test, L.A. Unified required students to get only six questions right — a 60% grade. What’s more, the test is fairly easy, and the two students interviewed by The Times who had taken that course said they had managed to skip most of the units by taking the pre-tests. Edgenuity, the company that developed the course, said most of the 1,900 districts that buy its courses don’t allow students to pre-test out of any part of the English courses; those that do generally require students to get a grade better than 60% and don’t let them skip writing assignments.”

Even though such online courses are UC-approved, not every agency takes a favorable view. Several years ago, the NCAA grew concerned about online recovery courses when it saw high school athletes could make up courses they previously flunked within a few days or hours, according to the Times:

“In 2010, the NCAA put a new policy into effect: Any online course taken for credit recovery must be comparable in ‘length, content and rigor’ to a regular course taught in a classroom. And students must have regular interaction with a teacher during the course. According to Nick Sproull, director of the NCAA’s Eligibility Center, it’s very rare for an online credit recovery course to be approved.”

Just two years earlier, data released by San Diego Unified showed only 59 percent of the class of 2016 was on track to graduate. But those numbers were only a snapshot in time that didn’t reflect all the students who would leave the district.

Between 2012 and 2016, about 2,650 high school students transferred to charter schools, moved to a new school district or left the country. And once they left, the district essentially removed them from the equation.

Put simply, by the time the class of 2016 reached senior year, the district had fewer students it needed to move toward graduation. And those who remained benefitted from extra supports, like credit recovery courses.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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